Montana short story author Darrell Cherry tells a wonderful Christmas tale set in the West Virginia coal mining towns of the 1930’s.
A Christmas Ribbon
In December of 1938, Annabelle Moore slipped from her quiet mountain home on a journey that had neither destination nor direction. A quarrel with her mother over something so trivial it is not worth mentioning forced young Annabelle to take up her resolve, along with a pillowcase of her belongings and a handkerchief full of biscuits and push forward into the great West Virginia outdoors.
Annabelle, a gangly, dark haired eight-year-old, set her course to the north and concentrated on the morose, heavy crunch of the snow beneath her boots while a crisp northern wind slapped and reddened her cheeks and made her eyes water. Infrequent, tiny flakes of snow scurried through the air.
She adjusted her scarf over her mouth and nose, lowered her head and plodded on. Occasionally, a well-aimed flake would come to rest upon her long eyelashes and she would close one eye as she walked, squinting to focus on the tiny frozen lace as it shifted and coiled into a droplet hanging from black rope.
She trudged along in the woods, feeling the crunch beneath her boots and analyzing the altering flakes of snow. Annabelle began to consider her future. She was a well-mannered, young country lady and had performed well in her studies. She was liked by her teachers and classmates, but when asked whether she enjoyed school her answer would be a resounding “NO!” But her dislike was due to the distance she was required to travel for her education, not from her pursuit of knowledge in general.
Lonely, silent walks in the winter woods often provide the setting for the most contemplative thinking of travelers, regardless of age, and Annabelle was no exception. Thoughts of her education melted into and mixed with thoughts of her future. What could she do to earn a living for the rest of her life without ever going back to school? She had learned to cook from her mother so she could work in a restaurant.
She had always had animals of one sort or another-dogs, cats, the occasional hog, and tending to them had always been her responsibility. She could be a veterinarian. That didn’t sound like it needed too much schooling.
But what Annabelle really wanted to become was a nurse. If she could get into Charleston somehow, she could work in the kitchen at a hospital making meals for the sick. “Then I’ll just watch what the nurses do everyday and learn how to be a nurse while I’m working in the kitchen. That won’t take any schooling at all.”
These thoughts, and others like them waltzed about Annabelle’s mind as she trudged through the snow. She had been on her adventure for nearly an hour and was venturing into unfamiliar areas of the woods. Though the wind had picked up and the snow was now falling in heavier flakes than before, Annabelle was warmer than before and her mouth felt wet and furry from her warm breath filtering through the scarf wrapped tightly around her face.
The terrain began to slop downward and Annabelle soon found herself jumping onto and over many fallen trees until she at last stood at the bank of a crisp, mountain stream bubbling over the many rocks and twigs in its path. Though ice had already formed on certain pockets and coves in the stream, Annabelle knew that the swiftness of the water would keep it from freezing until after Christmas.
“Christmas!” thought Annabelle. “Oh dear! Christmas is only 2 days away! What about my gifts for Ma and Pa!” Annabelle had worked very hard on the gifts for her parents that year, stitching her mother a picture of the mountains-complete with trees and a little house-for her to hang on the wall of the kitchen. But she was most proud of the hat and scarf she had knitted for her father. They were black, orange and yellow stripped and she had worked on them, with minimal help from her mother, for nearly two months and she desperately wished she would be able to see their faces when they opened the gifts on Christmas.
Oh well, maybe the gifts will cheer them up. They were bound to be pretty low about their only daughter leaving home so close to Christmas. She remembered her last Christmas being the best ever, and, until a short time ago, this Christmas was on pace to be even better still.
Last year her mother had traded a quilt and a good number of quarts of her canned fruit to Mrs. Cavendish for a genuine, store bought baby-doll with eyes that actually opened and closed when you laid her down and picked her up. She had spent a good deal of the next few months finding excuses to put her baby down for a nap, just to be able to watch her beautiful blue painted eyes disappear into her apple red cheeks.
Beside the doll, Annabelle’s father had gotten her a brand new winter coat, the very coat she now wore, and filled the pockets with an assortment of different candies. Thoughts of the candies and the canned fruit made her realize that she had left just before dinner and with her travels now reaching into their second hour, she considered the biscuits in her pillowcase. There was no telling how long it would be before she found a place to rest for the night and she was bound to need as much nourishment as she could find when she did. She decided it would be best to wait.
Annabelle took notice of the weather conditions and realized that the snow and wind had picked up considerably from the time her journey began, and she thought of her current situation. Where would she sleep tonight? She certainly couldn’t make it to town before night fell. There were some small caves to be happened upon in the mountains but it would be sheer luck to stumble upon one in the middle of winter. And if luck were on her side, there would be a chance that the cave would be uninhabited.
As the first seed of fear began to sprout in her mind, something very strange occurred. A large, black stag stepped out from the underbrush not more than 20 feet from where Annabelle was standing. He was tall and thick and the most majestic animal Annabelle had ever seen. He was far darker than any deer she had seen. He stood straight and proud with a full, beautiful rack of antlers. He stood in profile a moment then gracefully turned to look at the young traveler.
She was accustomed to seeing deer, but mostly does, fawns and the younger bucks who had yet to develop the skills of cover needed to evade and frustrate mountain hunters. She was too young to know much about counting the points of his rack but from that day forward every picture of a buck, or those unfortunate enough to find themselves hanging on someone’s wall would be compared unfavorably to what would be considered “Annabell’s Deer.”
She and the deer regarded one another for a time, then the noble beast snorted and turned away from her. She was frozen as she watched him turn and slowly make his way through the trees. Then, to her surprise, the stag stopped and turned his head to look at her. He was waiting for her; beckoning her to follow. Annabelle’s heart pounded in her ears as she took her first tentative step toward the creature. He remained still. She took another step, then another, then another until she was walking toward the creature at her usual pace, expecting the stag to bolt and carry away the remarkable moment with him. But he remained. The buck allowed her to within five feet before he turned and again began walking through the trees.
Five feet seemed to be his inside limit of comfort for the deer never allowed Annabelle any closer, though she longed to quickly lunge forward to stroke the fur on his long flanks. Likewise, when the terrain became difficult for his young companion and she was unable to keep close, the animal would again stop to regard her as she continued toward him. Annabelle wondered whether the buck was indeed wanting her to follow him or if this was simply some strange coincidence and the deer was merely regarding this young animal, as it would an opossum or a squirrel that traveled in a similar direction. If it were coincidence, Annabelle was in trouble.
She was no longer sure of her direction and the storm had worsened into something out of the ordinary. The wind had been gusting and weaker branches in the wood were periodically falling in every direction. She had long since left any path she might have been following but the snow that had fallen already would have made following a path through the woods impossible. Nevertheless, Annabelle forged on in pursuit of her guide.
Those with experience in wandering in the woods will recall that there are, from time to time, rocks, logs and holes of various shapes and sizes to negotiate along the journey. And after hours of these negotiations, legs begin to tire and weaken and even the strongest eight-year old country girl can find accidents easy to come by. Annabelle certainly did. Her deer had gotten further away than she cared to have him and, worried that she may lose her new friend and be stranded alone in the deep woods, Annabelle quickly jumped onto a log in her path, slipped on the snow and landed in a lump on the other side. Pain from her ankle rose from her leg and tightened the pit of her stomach. Bright lights invaded her eyes, and she thought for a moment she would be sick.
She screamed and cried fiercely for what seemed like an eternity, then remembered her deer. Tears streamed from her eyes as she tried to focus on the land around her. She looked in every direction but her friend was not to be found. She lowered her head and sobbed. Sitting alone in the woods with an injury during a snowstorm is a sobering experience. She began to get cold as she realized the dangerous situation she had put herself in and decided crying wouldn’t help her. She was miles from home in unfamiliar woods with a throbbing, hot pain in her ankle. As much as it hurt, it was time for her to take action. She found a long sturdy stick for support and pulled herself up.
Through the wind Annabelle heard a rustling, then a snort. He was back! He had not abandoned her to die in the cold. She looked in the direction of the sound but her friend was not there. There was however, smoke rising from a small cabin less than one hundred yards away. Using her stick as a crutch, Annabelle hobbled off in the direction of the cabin.
The short journey had proved more challenging than Annabelle anticipated and after nearly forty-five minutes of hobbling, crying, resting-hobbling, crying and resting, she finally reached the door of the cabin.
Annabelle collapsed in on the doorstep and rapped on the door with her stick. “Hello,” she cried. “Hello. Can somebody help me? Hello? Please? Hello?”
Annabelle heard a shuffling noise inside the shanty, then a loud metallic clang as the bolt on the door was shifted and the door flung open wide. The heat inside the cabin slapped Annabelle’s face, and her eyes welled-up with tears again. Bright light silhouetted a form inside the cabin and Annabelle felt strong, yet gentle hands lift her into the warmth of the little home.
She was placed on a little wooden chair near a roaring fire while the door was secured to keep out the winter night. Strong, gentle hands removed Annabelle’s wet clothes and wrapped her in a warm, thick quilt. The warmth of the cabin and exhaustion from pulling herself through the cold snow had tired her, and she drifted into a deep, comfortable sleep.
She awoke sometime later to syrupy sweet smells and the heavy clanking of cast-iron skillets, and she realized she had been tucked into a small bed in the corner of a one room cabin. Her sleepy eyes gazed about the clean, neatly arranged room, then focused on the movements of a large, black woman who stood at an old wood-burning stove in the opposite corner. Annabelle stretched, then groaned and whimpered as dull, thick pain from her ankle reminded her of how she had come to be a guest in this house.
“Well, well. Hello there, Sweetbaby. Are you feelin’ any better? I’ll bet you are. You weren’t doing too well, sitting out there on my doorstep a few hours ago. I declare, I sure wasn’t expecting to find a Sweetbaby like you sittin’ in the snow outside my door for Christmas. And in the middle of a storm like this too. Poor little bug, all wet and half froze to death! What cause you got to be out in the woods in weather like this? I can look at ya see you gots more sense than all that.”
Annabelle remained quiet and stared at the poorly, yet warmly dressed woman as she scurried from the stove to the fireplace to check her clothes which were hung there to dry. “You don’t feel like talkin’? That’s all right. You probably still too much in shock. You just sit there awhile and I’ll takes good care of ya. Some hominy is cooking and I’ve got a bit of brown sugar cane to put on it. You gonna like that I’ll say. That brown sugar gets like a syrup and when you mix it with the hominy, well you are gonna just love it. You’ll see. You ever put anything on your hominy? Anything but butter, I mean.” Annabelle nodded to the woman who was enjoying being the host but obviously was not accustomed to the role.
“Yeah? What you put on ‘em? Sorghums? I bet you put Sorghums Molasses on your hominy, don’t you? Well, Sorghums is good, that’s for sure, but just wait till you taste this here hominy with brown sugar cane. Sweetbaby, you gonna want to hop right on up out of that bed and run straight home. But I ain’t gonna let ya, on account of this here storm.”
The woman began her ritual at the stove, pouring water from one pot to another, switching ingredients from pan to pan, then spooning something brown and thick into a bowl. When the strange dance had finished, she brought a steaming bowl to Annabelle in the bed where she lay. “This ought to do it for ya. Some folks like to mash their hominy into grits, but not me. I figure that I got plenty of time for grits when God takes my teeth. In the mean time, I might as well use ‘em to eat my hominy whole. I don’t reckon that makes much sense to a girl your age, but let me just say this–you take good care of those teeth of yours, ya hear? The longer you able to chew without your gums, the better off you gonna be.”
It may have been that she hadn’t eaten for quite some time, or that the walking had made her particularly hungry, but the hominy and brown sugar was absolutely the best tasting food Annabelle could ever remember eating. She could hardly get her mouth full enough of the hot, sweet tasting meal before another spoonful was on its way toward her lips. Her hostess laughed a great, deep, hearty laugh so sweet and sincere that Annabelle had to look at her. Her eyes were coal black and sparkled in the light of the fire. Her face was wide and dark and smooth and wore a beautiful, wide smile of teeth as white as pearls. It was a wonderful face. But there was something more to it as well. Something deep, and soft, and it seemed that a million different emotions could come bursting forth at any moment and that those emotions would be stronger, more palpable than a normal person’s emotions–the type of emotions you could smell, and taste and wrestle with.
“I was fixin’ to ask if you liked it but I can sees you do. You eat all you want Sweetbaby. I got plenty more over here for ya. You might ought to slow down a bit though. You don’t want to make yourself sick.”
Annabelle finished two full bowls and three biscuits before she sat back on the mattress with her back against the cold wall. She could feel her cheeks getting warmer and knew they must be flaming red. She tried to remember the last time she felt so warm and contented.
“You sure got a good appetite for such a little thing. You feel like you can talk now?” Annabelle nodded but felt that she would rather sleep.
“Good. Now, what’s your name, Sweetbaby?”
“Annabelle Moore,” she whispered, half horse from contentment and sleep.
“Goodness sakes!” she gasped. “You Frankie and Ed Moore’s girl?”
Annabelle lowered her head and nodded.
“Well you’re lucky there ain’t any switches to be cut this time of year because your folks are gonna be fit to be tied! Why poor Frankie must be half-crazy with worry right now. And I’ll bet your Pappa’s out hunting you right this minute.” Annabelle shamefully nodded, then burst into tears. The woman who had been such a gracious hostess plopped down next to her as she cried and drew her into a long, rocking embrace.
“Now, now. That’s okay Sweetbaby. It’ll be all right,” she said as Annabelle buried her head in the woman’s shawl and allowed herself to receive the comfort being offered. “Don’t you fret now. Old Betty didn’t mean to get you so upset. These things have a way of working out. You’ll see. The good Lord will take care of it. How ‘bout you tell me how you got so far from home in a storm like this.”
Annabelle shook her head, not wanting to explain herself. “No? Alright then. How about I tell you a story. You want to hear a story? If I tell it, you have to get hold of yourself. You think you can do that?”
Annabelle shifted and wiped her eyes and nose with the back of her arm, then nodded and looked at Betty.
“Alright now, let’s see. Hmmm, how ‘bout I tell you about another Sweetbaby I used to know. A sweet, little thing that used to sleep right in the very bed we’re sitting on. Sound good? Alright then…
“About eight years ago, there was a little sweet girl who lived right in this here house with her momma and daddy. She was beautiful, just like you, but dark with eyes so black that her daddy used to say he could see all the way to the center of the world. And as good as the day is long, just as sweet a child as ever walked the face of the earth, she was. I remember her helping me with the washin’ when she wasn’t much more than walking and being so happy ‘bout just being around her momma that she’d start singing like a lark. That girl could sing so well that the birds would stop to listen to her. She even used to get up in church and sing in front of the whole congregation! And she wasn’t much more than five or six years old doing that. She was the kind of person that just made you feel better about yourself when she was around ‘cause she was so good, and if she was so happy about being around you, well then, you couldn’t be all that bad.
“I reckon the thing that made her most special, or peculiar some might say, aside from her singing and being so good and all, was the way she got on with all the creatures in the woods. There was something… I don’t know how to tell it, something odd about it. To tell you the truth Annabelle, it scared me a bit a first. I remember her father coming in here with her when she was only ‘bout three and he starts tearing through her clothes looking for cuts or bites or anything, frantic as I ever did see him, and that little girl just a crying to call up the dead. Well, of course I start helping him look for things before I even know what it is I’m supposed to be looking for. Anyway, we get that little creature stripped naked and there ain’t one scratch on her and I say to her daddy, ‘What on Earth you trying to do to that little baby?’
“So he just flops back on the floor with a look like he’s seen something strange and tells me, ‘Betty, I was choppin’ wood and I look over and see no less than ten gray squirrels crawling all over that girl and her laughing like you never heard. Them squirrels was all over her!’ he says to me. Well, not ever seeing squirrels acting like that before, he don’t know what to think so he figures they must a been crazy or sick and was biting on her or something of that nature.
“Now you should have seen that little thing throwing a fit, and cryin’ her eyes out trying to get herself loose from her momma and daddy. So we let her free and she runs right on out the door, as naked as the day she was born and, quick as a whip she’s out under a tree and has hold of a little ground squirrel and is just petting it like is was a toy.
“Well, that was just the start of it. We seen her playing with rabbits, ground hogs, moles…she even come home smelling of a polecat a time or two. Not like she been sprayed by one, more like she just been pettin’ it or playin’ with it and got hold of the smell. After she got a bit older she’d tell me about all the friends she would meet in the woods. She was about six or so when she told me she was playing with a pretty little cat with long back legs she run across in the woods and was carryin’ it around and wanted to bring it home. I reckon she was handling that bobcat like it was some old house tomcat and when she got close to the house here, he jumped out of her arms and scratched her on her left arm.
“I told her that she can’t be carryin’ all those wild animals around like that and she was lucky not to have worse, but she was more worried that her new friend wouldn’t play with her no more on account of her trying to bring it in the house. Can you imagine carrying around a wild animal like that and not getting no more than a little scratch on the arm? Course I told her she was not to go anywhere near any bobcats again, but she just laughed and said it was alright and that the old bobcat was real sorry he’d done it and started rubbing up against her leg after that to show how sorry he was and how bad he felt.
“I don’t know. Maybe it was from living out here in the middle of nowhere with not a soul for miles and miles that made her think that all them critters were put on this earth just to play with her. And maybe, being way back here in the woods, them critters didn’t know she wasn’t just a critter like them. It’s hard to say why, but it just wasn’t like anything anyone ever seen before. After a while, her daddy and me just stopped thinking there was anything out of the ordinary about her and those animals. She would come home talking about some little fawn she ran around with, or a coon she met down by the stream and her daddy and me wouldn’t think any more of than if she was talking about a friend from church.”
Betty got up from the mattress and crossed to a little window covered by a blanket and drew it back to stare into the darkness outside.
“The winter she came down with the fever was the worst time in my whole life. She come in one afternoon sayin’ how she couldn’t find any of her friends to play with and that her head was hurting her a bit anyway. She laid there two weeks, sweating and vomiting, just as sick as anybody ever dreamed of being. When she could, I’d sit her up and let her look out the window in case any of her friends happened by she might be able to see them…. My poor, sweet baby. She was as good and as pure a child as ever there was on this earth-save one, of course-but she’s with Him now.
“We buried her on Christmas day and I remember thinking that we gave Jesus the best birthday present anyone could have give him on that day. Her daddy spent hours and hours that Christmas, digging under that old beech tree with a spade and an old pick-ax. Then he came in, half froze, and wrapped our baby up in her blanket and just held her in front of the fire for awhile, not sayin a word, just rockin’ and staring at the fire. I couldn’t do nothin’ but watch him from my chair in the corner. I couldn’t even cry. I reckon I was just too sad to cry. And you want to know something really strange? Hardly a day passes when I don’t see some sort of critter out by that old beech tree. Like they come to pay their respects to one of their own. Squirrels, rabbits, coons, opossums, deer-they all come by. And you know something else-and I ain’t never said this aloud before-I think that sometimes they come by to see how I’m getting on too. Just to make sure I’m holdin’ up and to let me know that they still remember too. I suppose that sounds silly though.
“Her daddy passed about a year later in that cave-in they had down at the mine. I kind of figured that was a good thing though. He never did seem the same after diggin’ that hole under the beech tree. Like every swing of that pick-ax drained a little more of his soul out of his body till there wasn’t hardly any left for himself.”
Betty was quiet for a moment and continued staring out of the little cabin window when she felt the soft tug on her apron and turned to find Annabelle standing beside her. Betty smiled her soft, white smile and leaning over, placed a gentle kiss on the young girls forehead. Annabelle could stand it no longer and threw her arms around Betty and they sobbed together. Betty lifted the eight year old into her arms and rocked back and forth in the middle of the cabin floor.
“Thank you, Annabelle. Thank you for the best Christmas gift I have had in years.”
Annabelle pulled back and wiped her eyes. “But I haven’t given you anything.”
Betty smiled with tears streaming down her cheeks. “You’ve given me exactly what I was needing.”
There are moments shared between individuals that go beyond description. Moments that etch themselves into the actual being of those sharing them and, even while they are occurring, one knows that they will always be special to those who have experienced them. Both Betty and Annabelle knew that the bond between them would never be broken.
They quietly regarded one another for just a moment more when a pounding on the cabin door suddenly broke their harmony.
“Good gracious!” Betty exclaimed. “Someone’s trying to give me a heart attack!” She rushed to the door and found Ed Moore covered in snow, breathing heavily.
“Howdy Betty. You ain’t seen a little girl wondering about, have you?” Betty flung the door wide to show the worried father what he had been searching for.
“Annabelle!” he gasped as he sprang into the room and lifted his prize into his strong arms. “Oh God, thank you! I was so worried about you.”
Annabelle squeezed her father as tightly as her skinny arms could. “I’m okay Pa. Miss Betty’s been taking good care of me.”
Betty stepped quickly in to separate the father and his daughter, “Now, now Ed. You’re gonna freeze that girl all over again. Get out of those wet things and cozy up to the fire. I’ll get you something warm to eat.”
“No, no, Betty. You’ve done enough as is. Just let me thaw out by the fire for a piece, then we’ll get out of your hair. I hope my girl wasn’t too much bother for ya.”
Betty laughed, “Why Ed Moore! If you think for one minute that I’m going to let you take that Sweetbaby out into that storm then you’ve plum lost your mind. Now sit on down there and warm up by the fire while I fix something up for you to eat. And that little girl of yours was no trouble at all. She was just what a lonely old lady like me needed on a cold winter night.”
Annabelle sat curled up on her fathers lap, staring at the fire as it leaped around it’s logs. She was safe and secure and hardly noticed the throbbing in her ankle. She nestled as closely into her fathers arms as she could and felt his arms squeeze a little tighter around her as his bristly cheek brushed across her forehead and lightly kissed her hair.
After Ed had been fed and sufficiently warmed, and after convincing Betty that the storm had quieted enough to allow the travelers to continue on their way, Annabelle and Ed prepared to leave. Betty sat quietly by the stove watching them dress. Her father had just finished tightly tying her scarf around her neck when Annabelle struggled free from him and walked to where Betty sat in silence.
“Thank you,” she whispered as she hugged the woman who had shown her such kindness in her time of need.
Betty squeezed the child than released her embrace and grabbed her hand. “Come here,” she said and pulled Annabelle to a chest of drawers in the corner. “I want you to have this,” she said as she pulled a beautiful red ribbon from the top drawer.
She removed Annabelle’s hat and skillfully tied the ribbon into her curly brown hair. “It’s a Christmas present for you. It belonged to…well, you know who it belonged to. Merry Christmas Annabelle,” she said again hugging the girl. “You’re always welcome here.”
Betty replaced the young girls hat and returned to her seat by the stove. Then, after proper thanks and good-byes had been given, the two travelers were again out into the cold winter weather, Annabelle riding piggyback on her father as they trudged through the snow. “Pa? How do you know Miss Betty?” asked Annabelle after a few silent moments.
“I worked with her husband Tom before he was killed. He was a good man. Quiet man.” Ed Moore was not know to be a talkative man, so having him refer to someone as a quiet man was saying something.
“How does she know Mama?”
“Well, after her husband died, your mama fixed her up some food, like all the women around here do when there’s a passing in a family. When she brought it up here, Mama had a feeling that Miss Betty wasn’t doing all too well, which I reckon is understandable. And being that she was so far removed from everyone, your mama thought it might be a good idea to stay with her for a spell. She was up here a week, maybe ten days or so. They don’t see each other much, but I know that Miss Betty and your mama have a real good feelin toward each other.”
Annabelle was quiet for a while then asked, “Did you know her daughter?”
“Daughter? I don’t know nothing about that. Your mama may. Well, look at that. There he is again.”
Thirty feet from the path they were traveling, the dark stag lay in the snow watching the two travelers on their journey. “I saw that buck when I was out looking for you. Strangest thing, that old buck. It didn’t run or start even a little when it saw me. Almost seemed like he was expecting me. Just turned and started walking off. And here I am, yelling my fool head off ‘Annabelle! Annabelle!’ and it just keeps on walking away, nice and slow. So I followed him awhile, still yelling and screaming your name. Then I see Betty’s place and thought I’d check there for ya. You ever heard of something so strange?”
Ed and Annabelle stopped and stared at the buck relaxing in the snow. “No Pa. That sure is something. That’s some buck.”
Ed bounced his daughter higher on his back and Annabelle re-positioned her grip. “Yep,” he said as he turned for home. “That’s some buck.”